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What's wrong with this Synod, II: Debate is free, open (and censored)

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 10, 2014

Speaking to the Synod of Bishops on its first day of discussions, Pope Francis urged the participants to speak out boldly, “without human respect, without timidity.” The secretary-general of the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, echoed that message, saying that “discussion at the Synod is to be open.” This, we were told, would be a meeting marked by candor, by open debate, by an absence of restraint on the free flow of ideas.

The reality has been quite dramatically different. The Synod meeting of October 2014 has been far less transparent than previous sessions. The information reaching the Catholic world has been tightly controlled, heavily filtered—and, therefore, easily manipulated.

Maybe the Synod fathers really are engaged in a vigorous debate, as Vatican officials have repeatedly assured us. We don’t know what is happening inside the Synod hall; the discussion sessions are closed. So the world receives only partial stories, the telegraphic summaries, and above all the rumors. Conditions are ideal for anyone with an axe to grind, anyone who wants to fashion the sparse available facts into an argument to support his own pet theories.

Ironically, Synod officials say that they changed procedures for this October meeting in order to encourage candor. If the sessions were closed, they reasoned, bishops would not feel inhibited about speaking plainly. With no reporters in the audience, they could be as blunt as they wished, confident that their disputes would not play out across the next day’s headlines.

But what real harm would be done, if the world saw Catholic bishops engaged in a heated debate? We know that there are differences of opinion among the Synod fathers; what would be lost if those differences were a matter of public record?

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has argued for a more open approach. “All Christians have the right to be informed about the interventions by their bishops,” he said. Those who followed the Synod debates could learn from the bishops’ disagreements, gaining a deeper understanding of the issues.

In the past, reporters were allowed to attend the working sessions of the Synod. The bishops’ addresses were translated into several different languages and made public. The talks may have been long and dry; the discussion may have been disjointed. But anyone who wanted to know what was happening at the Synod could easily find a full record of the proceedings.

This year, the Vatican press office provides only a short summary of the day’s proceedings. The arguments that took up several hours are compressed into a few paragraphs. A few direct quotes may be included in the summaries, but the speakers are not identified. Which prelates made which points? We can only guess.

These summaries ensure that the world’s understanding of the Synod is filtered through the perceptions of the press office. If the Vatican officials who prepare these summaries miss the point of a bishop’s presentation, we will miss it, too; if they do not find an argument worthy of mention, we never hear about it. Rather than being instructed by the Synod fathers themselves, we are being instructed by the press office.

Apparently Vatican officials believe that this awkward system is the best way to manage the stories that emerge the Synod. But when public figures attempt to manage stories, by doling out information in carefully limited quantities, their efforts nearly always backfire. (Remember the “modified limited hangout” of the Nixon White House during the Watergate crisis?) There are always leaks. There are always enterprising reporters looking for inside information, and willing sources ready to supply it.

When everything is on the record, honest reporters can sort through the arguments and rebuttals, note the identity of the key participants in the debate, and reach logical conclusions about the trends of the discussion. When information is at a premium, however, the situation is ripe for exploitation by insiders with special interests: people who can play up their own arguments and cast their opponents in an unfavorable light.

As the Synod fathers see the highly colored stories that appear in the mass media, and wonder which of their colleagues might have been sources, the atmosphere of trust deteriorates. Writing from Rome early this week, Robert Royal reported that the atmosphere around the Synod has been tense, the comments heard in cafes have been often bitter, sometimes shockingly nasty.

At least among conservative Catholics, the tension and even bitterness have been aggravated by a clear double standard in the calls for an open, unfettered discussion. Cardinal Raymond Burke has provided a model of speaking “without human respect, without timidity.” But the impolitic American prelate has been unceremoniously ousted from the Congregation for Bishops, and according to many informed sources, will soon be removed from his current post as head of the Apostolic Signatura.

Meanwhile Cardinal Walter Kasper, whose proposal has been the primary focus of public discussion in the early days of the Synod meeting, has been ubiquitous in the media, promoting his argument that the Church should allow Catholics who are divorced and remarried to receive Communion. Yet reliable sources say that Cardinal Müller has been told not to promote a book in which he criticizes the “Kasper proposal.”

The manipulation of this Synod began long ago. In February, Pope Francis gave Cardinal Kasper the opportunity to address a consistory of cardinals at length, laying out his proposal. That session was confidential, but within weeks the German cardinal’s argument was published in book form. Even before the Synod fathers arrived in Rome at the start of October, the “narrative” for his Synod session had already been settled. The story line, in the eyes of the world, is whether the Pope and his favorite theologian can overcome the resistance of the Vatican’s old guard.

Is that an accurate description of what is actually taking place in the Synod Hall? We don’t know, because we don’t know what is happening. So the manipulation will continue. And remember that this is an extraordinary session of the Synod, with the ordinary session—dedicated to the same topic—to follow next year. Unless the Vatican changes policies, and allows for a truly open debate, the same stories will be repackaged and resold in the media constantly for the next 12 months.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 12 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: seewig - Oct. 13, 2014 3:27 PM ET USA

    It takes tremendous courage to be open and candid, considering the consequences in our secular world. But what if not all are playing the "game"? I would suggest to have a totally closed session, and then the Pope announcing the result. There cannot be a democracy in Church. We don't have a president or a CEO, - we have God the king over all the world. So the truth can only come from ONE source. Or else we'll for ever attach ourselves to our preferred actors in the Church, and fight.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2014 2:46 PM ET USA

    Is this like reality TV? Where's my popcorn?

  • Posted by: chady - Oct. 12, 2014 1:22 PM ET USA

    Fenton 1015153's comment. AMEN TO THAT!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 12, 2014 9:34 AM ET USA

    There is an excellent interview conducted by Raymond Arroyo on EWTN (World Over) about the topics being discussed in this Synod and and related events. It is remarkably candid. Cardinal Burke, in discussing the importance of prayer for good bishops, says: "The Catholic faith by its very nature depends on worthy shepherds." Indeed! Cardinal Burke is a great witness to the treasure that is our Faith, and we are witnessing the importance- the vitality- of worthy shepherds for the baptized.

  • Posted by: Geno190 - Oct. 12, 2014 12:31 AM ET USA

    I am sorry, but this article does not accurately reflect the current situation. Cardinal Burke and many Bishops who concur with his position and reaction to Kasper's positions, have a book containing their essays published and made available before the opening of the Synod. Also, the Synod sessions are getting extensive coverage in the press and various publications. I feel this article does a disservice to your readers.

  • Posted by: tmschroeder2790 - Oct. 11, 2014 6:00 PM ET USA

    Very important points you make, Mr Lawler. Thank you for the sobering commentary. I pray that there will be enlightenment by the Holy Spirit to grab hold of this moment in history and proclaim truth, love, reality and the necessity to move beyond discussion of conveniences.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Oct. 11, 2014 3:30 PM ET USA

    The current prolonged practice of annulments is correctly regarded by the people seeking them as hypocrisy. They embrace the lie that their marriage of 10, 20, 30 years never, ever existed for a moment of 10, 20, 30 years for a "lack of due discretion" at that moment when they said "I do". They want the outcome of being free to be married so they consent to it all, and are angry at the Church for forcing them through it. Attach a copy of the divorce decree to the marriage certificate. Done.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 11, 2014 11:43 AM ET USA

    Essential moral truths are NOT DEBATABLE. Really, the major task of this Synod (if there is a major task) is for the competent bishops & cardinals to challenge & confront the incompetent & the defective, & I am not sure if it would be profitable for the World & the Church-at-large to see that.

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Oct. 11, 2014 11:20 AM ET USA

    As Michael Voris has pointed out, this synod was deemed necessary only because of the failure of its delegates, when they were priests, to teach and propagate the faith in its traditional purity. The rejection of the teaching in Pope Paul's 'Humanae Vitae' was the catalyst that provoked the widespread dissension from the moral doctrine of the Church that is so prevalent today. Now, the chickens have come home to roost, in Rome of all places! The synod fathers must carry the can for the mess.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Oct. 10, 2014 10:22 PM ET USA

    I trust Pope Francis will look out for us.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 10, 2014 7:48 PM ET USA

    Doesn't this all have a familiar ring for readers in the US? We are used to politicians and political parties who fulsomely praise openness and candor in their talk, but then use deception, packed courts, executive orders, backroom deals, and all kinds of duplicity to make their view of reality law. For Americans paying attention, this kind of behavior has a name: liberalism. It's becoming clearer every day that we have a "liberal" administration in place in Rome and that Francis is part of it.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 10, 2014 7:14 PM ET USA

    Truth will set you free. Why is it so hard for Catholic Bishops and Cardinals to speak truth? A worldly view is concerned with world opinion but a Heavenly view is only concerned with truth. Pray for these synod attendees because they are playing with fire.